What would Michelangelo make of Bill Viola?

Published 4 March 2019

With the work of contemporary artist Bill Viola on show alongside works by Michelangelo, the exhibition’s co-curator imagines what the Renaissance master might have had to say about it, in a fictional letter to his nephew…

  • From the Spring 2019 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Lionardo –

    I received the three shirts you sent me with your letter; they were so coarse a peasant would be ashamed of them. Send me cheese and good Tuscan wine instead. I know you only want my money.
    This day I was let again into the Chapel of Pope Sixtus, where I painted the ceiling as a youth, and the Day of Judgement some 25 years since. Pope Paul had then begged me to paint the bottom of the side walls too, where the tapestries of that coxcomb Raphael are hung on Holy Days. But I am an old man, and agreed only to paint the Holy Father’s smaller chapel, with the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of St Peter, a work that yet wearies me.
    So instead His Holiness entreated of another, one Viola, Italian by name but from those lands that that Genoese schemer Columbus blundered across. Five moving images of pure light are ranged along the walls of Pope Sixtus’s chapel – Five Angels, the sacristan called them, though the men therein could be any of us, plunging as if into baptismal waters. My first thought was that, with sudden motion and sound of thunder, they made my own paintings look impoverished. But now I see these Angels speak the same truth that I aim blindly to stumble towards.
    In my Last Judgement I painted both body and soul rising as one on the Day of Wrath. But this body of mine is ever more a burden, and my care is only for the delivery of my soul to the mercy of Our Lord. And so in my drawings, mere scraps that they are, I look to put something of this passage of the immortal soul from the corrupt world – of the soul of Christ, and of all our souls. It seems to me that this Viola strives too, in these Five Angels, to capture the mystery of that passage, that fall into the ineffable light of the divine.
    What the cardinals will make of it I know not: some despised the nakedness of my Last Judgement, caring more for the garb of the messenger than for the verity of the message.
    I have paid a hundred gold scudi into the Covoni bank for your poor sister’s dowry. Treat her well and be a man of honour in word and deed.

    On the 27th day of April 1546 Your uncle Michelangelo Buonarroti, in Rome.

    • Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth

      26 January – 31 March 2019

      This exhibition pairs Bill Viola’s powerful installations with rarely-seen drawings by Renaissance master, Michelangelo. Journey through the cycle of life in our immersive and unparalleled show.

      Bill Viola, 'Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall)', 2005
  • Martin Clayton is Head of Prints and Drawings for Royal Collection Trust and co-curator of Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth
    Exhibition organised by the RA in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and with the collaboration of Bill Viola Studio. Supported by the Genesis Foundation with grateful thanks to John Studzinski CBE. Supported by Blain|Southern. Supported by Dunard Fund

    Page header: Bill Viola, “Departing Angel”, panel 1 from Five Angels for the Millennium, 2001 Video/sound installation Performer: Josh Coxx Courtesy Bill Viola Studio